Book Review: Head Gardeners

I have long held the view that head gardeners deserve better recognition. They are the unsung heroes of many of our most iconic gardens and of gardens the length and breadth of the country. While it is true they often shun the limelight, the ones I have had the pleasure of interviewing have always inspired and motivated me and left me with the warm feeling that they truly love their work and want to share that joy with others.

So I am delighted that finally, author Ambra Edwards has taken up the challenge and written a book that explores the lives, visions and achievements of fourteen very special head gardeners. In her new book – ‘Head Gardeners‘ – she has managed to bring together a truly eclectic mix of gardeners to bring us the fascinating people behind a wide range of gardens and landscapes.

In the Introduction, the author includes a quotation from Mike Calnan, Head of Gardens at the National Trust: “It’s difficult to imagine a class of people who have such tremendous skills, who contribute so much to society and who are so thoroughly undervalued.” That just about says it all really so its time we had a publication addressing the balance.

As the author points out, garden designers tend to rule the roost while the gardener, who carries out the designer’s vision, cannot command anything like the attention or remuneration of the former. The important point is made too that …”the practice of gardening is widely dismissed as a career for the intellectually challenged…” In a horticultural survey in 2013 it was found that 70% of 18 year olds believed horticultural careers should only be considered by those who have failed academically. This fact enrages Jim Buckland, head gardener at West Dean Gardens who points out that “gardening is not a career for dimwits.”

When you look at the demands of the modern head gardener you see a skillset that would be hard to find in many other professions. Among the many and various roles a head gardener might play today, it is not uncommon to find them acting as project manager, conservationist, artist, historian, plant guru, educator, scientific investigator, social worker, public relations supremo, events planner and businessman. Oh, and in their spare time they actually manage to grow things!

So today, head gardeners are expected to be a master of an array of skills but now with fewer hands and with a fraction of the resources of their predecessors. This book pays tribute to their inventiveness, their energy, imagination and dedication to horticulture and the gardens in their care. The stories are fascinating and the variety of experiences, backgrounds and personal histories absorbing, inspirational and in some cases surprising.

Michael Walker, Trentham

Of the 14 head-gardeners featured, I am delighted that Ambra has included Michael Walker, of Trentham Gardens and Martin Ogle, of Lowther Castle. I have interviewed both and when I say head-gardeners have often motivated and inspired me by their enthusiasm and dedication, that certainly applies to these two. I was interested to learn that when the Trustees of Lowther Castle in Cumbria, were looking for a Head Gardener the job specification was based on Michael Walker! As the author explains, for Martin, the trials and tribulations of taking on a role to reawaken a sleeping beauty while at the same time preserving that air of mystery, was just too good to miss.

Ambra carefully crafts the backgrounds, visions, challenges and inner thoughts of her subjects with delightful descriptions of the gardens they look after, so the reader really comes to understand how the gardens interact with their gardeners and vice versa.

Martin Ogle, Lowther Castle

I loved the descriptions that Ambra uses to describe some of her subjects: at Merton College, Oxford, Lucille Savin is “possessed of a radiant calm and positive energy of a kind that makes ordinary mortals feel a tad underpowered.” At Trentham Gardens, Michael Walker is described as having more than an echo of Paxton: “He has the self-same dash and energy, the same disinclination to let petty barriers impede him.” I couldn’t agree more with her description. Troy Scott Smith, head-gardener at Sissinghurst is described as “cutting a Byronic swathe through the British horticultural establishment“.

Charlie Hopkinson brings that extra depth to each subject with his superb photography. His actual portraits of the gardeners concerned are perfect. His carefully chosen photographs of the gardens and landscapes add the right depth and meaning to the author’s words.

Lucille Savin, Merton College, Oxford

An entertaining and insightful book, well written and with just the right mix of personal background, historical content and garden description for each subject.

Featured gardeners are:

Ned Price, The Weir, Hertfordshire
Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter, East Sussex
Paul Pulford, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Mick Evans, Packwood House, Warwickshire
Beatrice Krehl, Waltham Place, Berkshire
Troy Scott Smith, Sissinghurst, Kent
Lucille Savin, Merton College, Oxford
Alistair Clarke, Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Portrack
Carol Sales, Headley Court, Surrey
Andrew Woodall, Broughton Grange, Oxfordshire
Michael Walker, Trentham, Staffordshire
Martin Ogle, Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, West Dean Gardens, West Sussex

The author, Ambra Edwards is a journalist with a special interest in garden history and the people, passions and often surprising stories that lie behind our gardens. Three times voted Garden Media Guild Garden Journalist of the Year, she is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Telegraph, Gardens Illustrated and Hortus among others.

Charlie Hopkinson is a portrait and landscape photographer specializing in the arts, gardening and landscape. His work has been published in magazines and books worldwide and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.

Head Gardeners‘ by Ambra Edwards with photography by Charlie Hopkinson, is published by Pimpernel Press Ltd – – in hardback at £35.00. It will be released on 21st September 2017 and is available to order from Amazon.

Photo credit: All photographs ©Charlie Hopkinson.

Review copy kindly supplied by publishers.